You may feel confident that you know your property lines just by looking at your house and yard. The neighbor’s fence and where you mow your grass all seem to match the boundaries between other houses on your street.
Now imagine being so wrong about your property lines that you learn your house is built on the completely wrong lot. Even smaller mistakes or discrepancies between documents can lead to costly issues if you and a neighbor disagree over the location of your property line. Here’s what you need to know about finding your property lines, and how to use the information once you get it.
Why Is Knowing Your Property Lines Important?
From permits to purchases, being able to identify your property lines accurately makes it much easier to complete a project or move forward with a transaction.
In most official cases, having a new survey done is the way to go. “Let’s say, for example, you want to build a swimming pool, and you’re not 100% sure where that easement is. You could have a new survey done,” explains Cynthia Durham Blair, a residential real estate closing attorney based in Columbia, South Carolina.
When you purchase a home, it’s not uncommon for your mortgage lender to require a new survey be conducted on the property. Even when that’s not the case, your title insurance company will likely recommend a new survey as well, so you know if the neighbor’s garage reaches over onto the property or if the outdoor kitchen encroaches on a sewer easement, which could be costly to remove down the line.
Blair says issues discovered in a new survey of the property may not be covered in the standard owner’s title insurance policy, but knowing those concerns before you close could help you decide if you need to renegotiate with the seller or walk away from the deal entirely.
Who Dictates Property Lines?
Depending on how your neighborhood was founded, your property may have been separated from the land around it at the behest of a developer, by the city, county or state, or even by a neighbor who chose to sell a portion of a large plot of land. A surveyor plays the vital role of establishing the formal boundaries and marking them. When property is legally split, the new property lines are established in a survey.
You and your neighbor may agree to change your property lines yourselves, though this involves a boundary line agreement, also called a lot line agreement, that involves deeding the land in question and changing the legal description of both your properties.
How Do I Find My Property Lines?
Check Your Deed
Before you fork over the cash for a new survey, there are a few ways you can find your property lines for free. Your property lines are noted in a few different locations, including in the legal description for the lot, which would be on your property deed and on a plat map, which is typically available through your local assessor’s office or planning office.
A property’s legal description is most easily found on the deed to the property, and there are a few ways the description can be written. It could simply describe the property’s exact location as it exists on the plat map, or it may include specific details with precise measurements that allow you to walk the property lines from a nearby reference point.
Review a Plat Map
A plat map shows property outlines for an entire neighborhood or area. On a standard residential street, you can expect to see rectangles all about the same size lined up on each side of the street, which signify each privately owned property. Every individual property will be labeled with an identifying number, which is the parcel number assigned when the lots were planned for separate sale and follow surrounding parcel numbers in numerical order. Your deed should note the parcel number, but you can typically find the parcel information if you look up your home through your local assessor’s office. The plat map is also your best bet to find your property lines online, as your assessor’s office may provide plat map snapshots through its website.
Spot Survey Markers
Being able to perfectly translate the legal description to establish the physical boundaries on your property can be quite the feat if you’re not trained to do so. Many properties have hidden markers at the corners that, if found, can help you follow your boundaries. When a survey is conducted, the surveyor will leave flags or stakes at the metal markers, which are typically buried or have a cap sticking out of the ground.
“In the newest subdivisions, (homeowners) can kind of do it themselves if they’re comfortable with a tape measure,” says Jonathon Lord, managing partner for Carolina Land Surveying, based in Little River, South Carolina.
Search for Survey Pins
Even if your property doesn’t have visible corner markers, you may be able to hunt for the buried markers with a metal detector. The metal poles, often made of rebar, can be buried up to 10 inches below the surface. Use a metal detector until it indicates metal is there, then dig to be sure that what you’ve found is the marker.
Before you dig for the marker, be sure you know the location of any buried wires or irrigation systems to avoid causing damage. The universal phone number for U.S. homeowners to request buried utility information is 811, and with a few days’ notice, someone from your local utility company should be able to mark county wires or pipes with spray paint.
Hire a Surveyor
For existing residential properties, a surveyor specializes in making precise measurements to locate the legal boundaries of a plot of land and any improvements to the property, from the house and driveway to a swimming pool or backyard shed.
Taking the details from the legal description and plat map, a surveyor carefully measures the legal boundaries of your property. The surveyor will bury survey pins if they’re not already there and often mark the spots with stakes or flags for easy use.
The complexity of a survey depends on the geography of the area, what’s on your property and what surrounds it. In an area where homes were built relatively recently and there are few trees, a survey could be completed as quickly as 30 to 45 minutes, says Mike Stanley, owner of Stanley Land Surveying, based in the Huntsville, Alabama, metro area.
But in an older neighborhood, where lots of properties have fences and established trees, “a half acre could take you two to three hours,” he says.
HomeAdvisor reports the typical price range to hire a land surveyor is between $349 and $686, with the national average at just about $517. Depending on the size of your property and where you live, you could see that price rising past $1,000, according to HomeAdvisor.
Avoid Trusting Fence or Driveway Boundaries
Don’t use fence lines, driveway boundaries or your neighbor’s garden as a point of reference. Just because you’ve assumed that’s where your property ends doesn’t mean it’s accurate. “If the fence was built and they didn’t get a survey, they built it where they thought the line would be” rather than where it actually is, Stanley says.
Look at Sidewalk Cuts and Streetlights
If you’re looking for clues as to where your property might start and end, streetlights or telephone poles at the road are commonly placed on property lines. Similarly, many cities will follow property lines when pouring concrete for sidewalks by including a cut at the property lines, making each property have a complete number of sidewalk squares.
While these details may be more reliable than following your neighbor’s fence, they’re still not always accurate. Don’t consider breaks in the sidewalk or the location of a streetlight as a definitive marker of your property line without checking the survey first.
Can You Locate Your Property Lines Online?
The publicly recorded documents that can help you find your property lines are typically available online through your local assessor’s office. These include the deed, which includes the legal description of your property and the plat map, which will show an outline of your property with others in the area.
How to Handle Disputes Over Property Lines
If you and your neighbor disagree about the location of your property lines, the quickest solution is to hire a surveyor to provide a definitive answer.
If your neighbor is encroaching on your land and refuses to stop, you may want to enlist the help of a real estate attorney. Without action, enough time could pass to make the encroachment a prescriptive easement, which can mean that you lose the right to require your neighbor to remove a fence or stop using the portion of your property.
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Update 02/08/22: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.